It was a brisk February night and I was camping out in the Lake District with my mountaineering friends. I had been hoping to get a spell of stargazing in, and things looked pretty good as I dismounted from the minibus, with Orion above the mountains, and the usually faint constellation of Lepus (the hare) clear beneath his feet. Unfortunately by the time we’d put our tents up a high light cloud had swept in across the sky like a veil, hiding everything except the waning crescent of the moon, to which it gave a diffuse and lovely lustre. My hopes of stellar observations were evidently thwarted. It was time we gave up and headed for the pub.
Yet as my friends pulled their head torches over their foreheads, and brilliant white diodes illuminated the road ahead in their wavering glare, the poet in me rebelled, and I hung back. The moon gave enough light to walk by, and I was keen to enjoy the night on its own terms. If I couldn’t admire the beauty of the heavens, this was the next best thing.
It took my friends a long time to pass me, and they would keep turning back for some parting comment on my eccentricity, and inadvertently dazzling me by the glare of their head torches. Finally, the last of them turned the corner, and I was alone on the unlighted road. The moon was behind me as I walked, and my eyes fed upon the darkness, slowly weaning themselves from the light. From the first I could make out the lines of the mountains that surrounded the valley, stark against the skies – then the trees overhanging the road – then the stones in the dry stone walls, and the sheep in the fields beyond them. A puzzling fork in the road turned out to be the twin arches of a bridge beneath which the river roared unseen.
Surprisingly, I find tarmac is one of the hardest things to walk on at night simply because it’s so featureless, so black and so even. The eye can’t pick out its texture, and each step is a battle against the half-conscious suspicion that a yawning pit is about to open beneath my feet and swallow me. In the woods, by contrast, the very roughness ground makes me swifter and more sure of myself. This added a new frisson to the fine chill February night, which already had more than a touch of the Gothic about it for those of us wandering beneath the moonlight. It was such a night as Coleridge describes:
Is the night chilly and dark?
The night is chilly but not dark.
The thin grey cloud is shed on high;
It covers, but not hides, the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the cloud is grey.
I half expected to glimpse Christabel kneeling beside an old oak tree as I passed by. There were no electric lights in sight now, and I had become an anonymous traveller in the anonymous, timeless night.
In the eighteenth century, to travel at night and by moonlight was common. Country balls would be held at the full moon, so as to give enough light for the coaches to drive home when the evening wound to its close. In the great comic novels of Henry Fielding, Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, the heroes travel as much by night as they do by day, frequently striking out from unfriendly inns at unlikely hours. They would have relied solely on their night vision. Only in the big cities would you have linkboys with flaming torches to guide late night drinkers from door to door.
Today it seems hard to imagine. My mountaineering friends had a gorgeous story of how they had arrived in Snowdonia on a brilliantly clear night, and decided on a whim to forsake their tents and climb Snowdon by starlight – but I had little doubt they’d done it all with their head torches shining out before them. In these days of constant lamplight and pocket torches, the darkness beyond has become more sinister, peopled with God knows what. It requires a real effort of will to step into it, to let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and resign yourself to the fact that each footfall is a leap of faith.
I turned a corner, and the electric lights of the pub dazzled me. The night vision I’d acquired over the course of half an hour was gone in a flash. My thoughts turned from Coleridge and Fielding to those famous lines of Byron:
Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.